I saw Billy Budd (1951) at the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in the fall of 2004, and recently rented the Netflix DVD of a 1988 BBC performance with the English National Opera conducted by David Atherton, distributed by Image. Billy Budd is played by Thomas Allen, Captain Vere by Philip Langridge, and Claggart by Richard Van Allan.
The story derives from a novella by Herman Melville; the libretto was written by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier.
But it is the meaning of the story that is controversial. On one level, it is even compared to the Passion. Billy is seen as a Christ figure, Claggart as Satan or as Judas, and Vere as Pilate.
The music is linear, modal and sinewy, the brass sometimes imitating the effects of a shipboard band. The choral harmonic effects in the “All Hands Down” near the end are startling (and that music was used in the French film “Beau Travail” (dir. Clair Dennis), where the setting is Djibouti with the French Foreign Legion. The very ending, where Billy is lowered to the sea, reminds one of late Mahler (“Das Lied von der Erde”) or even the hushed close of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony.
I say, perform this again in Washington, and let SLDN make it an occasion for a gigantic fundraiser if Marty Meehan’s bill to lift DADT makes real progress.